If You’re Going to Challenge the 1619 Project, Don’t Do It This Way

Conservatives’ “1776 Project” sounds a lot like Bill Cosby’s pound cake speech all over again

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BBlack history is always American history, but American history is not always Black history, and our annual, month-long tip of the hat in February has yet to make this any less true. It takes pointed and sustained efforts for such work to make any discernible impact on the American psyche beyond a news cycle. Which is why, when the New York Times launched the 1619 Project in August 2019, commemorating the 400-year anniversary of Africans arriving at these shores for the express purpose of enslavement, it felt utterly unprecedented.

Here was America’s most storied newspaper doubling down on Black history — outside of February, no less — with a wealth of resources ranging from historical analysis to art, with the express purpose of amplifying that history beyond soundbites. It is a still-unfolding commitment bordering on covenant, seeking to move the needle on the “race conversation” people are always saying they want to have.

Naturally, the effort received some criticism.

Much of it came from conservative pundits and politicians like Newt Gingrich, who called it “propaganda.” The grievances in many of these cases have less to do with the 1619 Project’s historical merits than its political conclusions and cultural implications. The idea of America and the reality have always been in conflict; most arguments about the nature of the U.S. stem from a difference of opinion on how much the scales tip in favor of one plate over the other.

If one approaches the 1619 Project like a conversation instead of a doctrine, it becomes easier to see how such a catalog of ideas can be used productively. Yet, the 1776 Project has sought simply to hot-take it to death.

Yet, the most odious criticism to date is the newly launched 1776 Project, a half-baked effort to create a patriotic alternative to the 1619 Project, made all the worse by the fact that it is led by a cabal of Black academics and conservatives and clergy. As the project’s website states:

[The 1776 Project] is an assembly of independent voices who uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery. We seek to offer alternative perspectives that celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity and highlight the resilience of its people. Our focus is on solving problems.

If a tenet of the 1776 Project is that the American definition not be confined to the effects of slavery, Nikole Hannah-Jones clearly gets that. The New York Times investigative reporter’s opening statement on the 1619 Project is loaded with such observations, the intent and scope of the project made clear. “It would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of Black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage,” she writes. “Through centuries of Black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — Black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.” Even a stone-cold White supremacist would agree with at least the second half of that last statement.

Look, I get it. It can be hard to read a line like “For generations, we have believed in this country with a faith it did not deserve.” But then you only have to read the next sentence to get right again: “Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best.”

That is not the flag-planting of Black pessimism the 1776ers claim the 1619 Project represents.

In fact, there is almost nothing in Hannah-Jones’ opening salvo a Black person in this day and age would contest, which raises the question: What is the problem 1776ers have with the 1619 Project?

According to the 1776 Project’s founders, the 1619 Project “finds slavery in everything” to the detriment of self-determination, particularly in Black youth. It supposedly does not spend enough time focusing on the accomplishments of Black people, is not solution-facing, and is disconnected from the pillars of religion long entrenched in Black communities. 1776ers are especially upset at any suggestion that slavery informs the founding of the American spirit even remotely as much as the Declaration of Independence. Most insulting was the statement by economist Glenn Loury, PhD, at the founders’ initial press conference, which explicitly questioned whether or not the writers of the 1619 Project even “believed in Black people.” Ultimately, he and his cohort see the work of the 1619 Project as capable only of fragmenting Americans, rather than bringing them together in a more nuanced understanding of history.

It’s specious to claim that a conversation about a thing is somehow worse than the act in question. That math doesn’t hold up when we talk about the Jewish Holocaust or Japanese-American internment camps, and it shouldn’t be taken seriously here. The issue isn’t that Americans can’t weather generational despair when it comes to criminal human suffering; it is that White Americans don’t want to hear about the suffering they have caused, let alone that they continue to benefit from. No one wants to have their football game interrupted by a call to acknowledge that maybe everything in the U.S. isn’t okay.

The topic does not have to be a tinderbox. There could be a unity of reconciliation, reckoning, and reparation around American slavery. Only the agendas we attach to it undermine its effectiveness. If one approaches the 1619 Project like a conversation instead of a doctrine, it becomes easier to see how such a catalog of ideas can be used productively.

Like any conversation, the 1619 Project is not flawless. But absolutism is not its mission; by its editors’ and writers’ own admission, it is a living body of work, seeking to grow and learn and incorporate new information. Certainly, there could have been a productive and healthy debate on what the definition of “enslavement” means (see: the rebellion of enslaved Africans against Spanish settlers in 1526) or whether 1619 is a better or worse starting block than 1776 on historical merits. Yet, rather than engage critique on those grounds — rather than adjust the information on the table or how it might be applied to real-world concerns — the 1776 Project has sought simply to hot-take it to death, to torpedo it all together.

If you only take the word of the 1776 Project, the most egregious result of the 1619 Project is Black suffering. Somehow, being made aware of the racier aspects of American history — a task that used to be taken up by schools on at least a surface level — will make Black people less inclined to improve their lot in life. We will be too depressed to pull ourselves up, too lazy to look beyond the boogeyman of slavery, too demoralized to even want to succeed at anything.

This despite the fact that there is no United States as we know it without generations of enslaved labor, that our very governmental structure was born from the benefits of said labor, and that many of the problems facing Black Americans are rooted in generations of abject terrorism.

A pillar of 1776ers’ philosophy of pragmatism is that, once emancipation became the order of the day, any slavery-related hurdle ceased to exist. All of a sudden, Black families were thrown into the same statistical matrix as White families, their earning rates and marriage statistics earnestly compared to those of White Americans (whose greatest struggle up to that point was determining which of them was going to benefit first from Manifest Destiny).

To act as if America was suddenly striving to create an empowered Black reality after slavery is hyperbole bordering on a lie. Sure, Black employment and homeownership were higher per capita during Reconstruction and various periods of the 20th century than they are now — and yet a refusal to draw attention to the fact that segregation forces independence is either negligence, conceit, or deception. None of the people associated with the 1776 Project are unaware of that context. They are choosing to erase it as it suits the purpose of Black Exceptionalism, which is their true religion. The problem is that you cannot pretend that some history happened and other history did not.

The 1776 argument is essentially a bootstrap argument — the Bill Cosby pound cake speech sprung to life — which always sounds good on paper but translates poorly when applied to the lives of millions of Black people who cannot afford boots. Their response to racism is Black Exceptionalism: not “stop racism,” but “work harder.” As if there exists an era when Black people have not been the hardest working people in the building.

The irony here is that what they want to do doesn’t work on its own. And I don’t have to guess if that’s true; I know that it is true because it is essentially what we have been doing since Reconstruction. We’ve actually been running the 1776 Project playbook for generations — respectability politics, integration at the cost of self-sufficiency, the Black church as a civic agent. In the world of Black Exceptionalism, you don’t need to save a whole neighborhood so long as you can cherry-pick the Black people who deserve to be saved. And the results are in: Every negative metric of Black life in the U.S. has increased since the civil rights era.

The 1776 agenda has never succeeded for Black people in the main for the same reason that most socio-political agendas fail: If you cannot care for your people, then your movement cannot live. It is not our movement at all so much as it is your moment.

There was a path not taken here where the two projects could have become one initiative; not agreeing on everything, but at least agreeing to inform the other pragmatically. The 1776 Project should have come along to extend the conversation, not to demolish it. Because both things can be true at the same time about the United States: It can be both great and horrible. America cannot be what it is without Black people and slavery, and it can be a place where the greatest opportunity for change exists. Somewhere between those two inarguable realities is not only the truth but all of our solutions as a nation. Somewhere in the middle is the way out of every oppression that exists in this country. We simply aren’t interrogating the middle very well before we start applying the Band-Aids.

For better or worse, almost anything can be labeled problematic in this day and age, and I don’t have a beef with that. What I do take issue with is using the word “problematic” when we mean “irreparable.” By definition, something that is problematic might have a solution. Something that is irreparable cannot be fixed. While I am hesitant to put words in anyone’s mouth — especially someone as intelligent as Hannah-Jones — I feel it safe to say that no one puts in the effort that she and her team has because they think America is incapable of reconciliation.

So if you want to have beef with the 1619 Project, fine. But the 1776 Project is about as far from the right answer as you can get.

Writer and poet holding down Columbus, Ohio

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